For weeks we’ve been chiding the NHL for pussyfooting around the Olympics-participation issue.
We knew NHL owners hated the Olympics. And we heard over and over about how we shouldn’t assume the NHL was going to agree to show up in South Korea for the 2018 Olympics.
But, come on, this was all about leverage, right? About the owners trying to get something from the International Olympic Committee or the National Hockey Players’ Association to sweeten the pot.
For the love of vulcanized rubber, stop threatening and do something.
Monday, the league abruptly drew that line, saying enough was enough, it would not be going to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
If the league is to be taken at its word, and this is not a bargaining tactic (participation in the 2014 Winter Games was agreed upon in July 2013), it’s a done deal.
“We now consider the matter officially closed,” the league said in a release Monday.
And whatever you make of this whole Olympic charade, having the NHL finally say to the International Olympic Committee and the NHLPA “Take a hike” is kind of refreshing. At least something has been done.
Regardless, the IOC bungled this from the get-go. The hockey tournament is the marquee event of the Winter Olympics.
It has been so since the NHL began its participation in Nagano in 1998, when the league first put its season on hold, sending Wayne Gretzky and Chris Chelios and Dominik Hasek and the rest of its stars to play on the biggest sporting stage in the world.
The NHL’s Olympic experience has been magical and plodding and rife with problems, and home to some of the greatest hockey every played.
The fact the IOC chose to poke an unhappy bear — that is, league owners sick of sending their players away in the middle of the season for what they perceived as modest returns on their significant investment — reveals an organization truly out of touch with its constituents: sports fans.
First, the IOC refused to pay costs associated with NHL participation (insurance, etc.) that they had been paying since 1998, which annoyed the owners, league officials and players. Then, when the International Ice Hockey Federation came up with the money to pay those costs, the NHL continued to balk — so the IOC poked the bear again, warning that if the NHL didn’t show up in South Korea, the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing might be off the table, as well.
That led to the tipping point for the league.
As a result, the IOC, its sponsors and broadcasters — who have paid millions to be associated with the South Korea Games — can forget about Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Henrik Lundqvist and Sidney Crosby et al., and look forward to many stories about Max Talbot or Matt Gilroy or Bobby Butler or Ben Scrivens or any number of collegiate or former NHL players who will now be Plan B for USA Hockey and/or Hockey Canada.
As for the players, they now have to wonder about how they handled this.
NHLPA executive director Don Fehr was right when he told ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun recently that the players shouldn’t have to give any concessions to keep playing in the Olympics, for which they get paid no salary.
Fair enough. Totally get that.
But if the players thought the league was bluffing, hoping to get something from them or the IOC but would ultimately agree to keep going to the Olympics, they misread the situation.
Would it have killed the players to agree to see the current collective bargaining agreement to its end in 2022, agreeing to give up their out-clause after the 2020 season to ensure they continued to take part in a tournament that means so much to them?
What exactly is wrong with as much labor peace as possible, given the contentious history that exists between the league and its players?
OK. So, now what?
The league believes this decision has no bearing on its long-range plan to till what it sees as fertile ground in China, even if the NHL’s players don’t end up playing in the Olympics there in 2022.
There have been ongoing meetings with government officials and private businesspeople in China in recent months, and a source insisted that at no point has anyone suggested that the NHL’s participation in the Beijing Games is critical to the NHL’s relationship with the country’s growing hockey program.
That’s a pretty big gamble on the league’s part, but 2022 is a long time away.
What looms larger is how NHL players will take this news and, specifically, how is the league going to respond if players such as Alex Ovechkin simply walk away from their teams and jet off to South Korea, as the Washington Capitals captain has threatened to do since before the NHL agreed to go to the Sochi Games in Russia in 2014.
There is no formal league policy on what will happen if players do go AWOL.
My guess is the league will make very clear to owners — including Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who is on record saying he would allow Ovechkin to play for Russia, even if the NHL was out — that they can’t allow that.
And they can’t.
If the NHL is out of the Olympic business, its contracted players should be out, too. And if Ovechkin defies that — even with his owner’s permission — then he should be done for the season. There can be no half-measures when it comes to this.
Making this decision is just the first step. And in some ways the easy part. It’s what the league claimed it was going to do all along. And it did it.
All commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners have to do is stand by their word. Now we’ll see if that turns out to be harder than the decision to walk away.